Jeffrey S. Buguliskis Ph.D. Technical Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

The Proposed Cuts Are Four Times Greater than Those Made in the 2013 Sequestration

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) can trace its origins to the early adolescent years of the U.S. when President John Adams signed a bill in 1798 establishing the Marine Hospital Service, which granted relief to sick and disabled seamen. Almost 100 years later, Joseph Kinyoun, M.D., Ph.D., opened a small, one-room laboratory within the Marine Hospital to study cholera and other infectious diseases—solidifying the organization's commitment to public health research.

Since its humble beginnings, the NIH has grown into a massive agency that concomitantly conducts research through its Intramural Research Program (IRP), as well as provides a major funding stream for academic and non-NIH research institutions through its Extramural Research Program. In fact, the IRP is the largest biomedical research institution in the world, employing 1,200 principal investigators and over 4,000 postdoctoral fellows in a variety of scientific disciplines. With 27 separate institutes and 148 Noble Prize winners having received support, the NIH has more than a few scientific accomplishments to show for itself. For instance: the development of MRI; the creation of vaccines against hepatitis, Haemophilus influenzae (HIB), human papillomavirus (HPV); as well as an understanding of how viruses can cause cancer.

Yet, these advancements come at a cost—literally. Science is neither a fast nor a cheap endeavor, and payment is requisite. Since the 1950s, the NIH budget has seen steady growth; with the agency accounting for 0.02% of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 1950 to 0.18% of GDP in 2013. While this represents billions of tax-funded dollars being sent to the agency annually, bear in mind that the NIH allocates greater than 80% of its funding to principal investigators around the country across a huge array of research disciplines. Funding truly is the lifeblood of research and as DNA structure co-discoverer Francis Crick, Ph.D., once stated: “only time and money stand between us and knowing the composition of every gene in the human genome”—underscoring the importance of consistent streams of money being infused into the annual NIH budget.

So, what does it mean for researchers and science when President Trump announced recently that he plans to cut 20% out of the NIH budget? Imagine having 20% less money to pay your bills each month—an oversimplification for sure, but meant to highlight the importantance every dollar the NIH receives.

“A cut of the magnitude proposed by the Administration would absolutely result in job losses, lab closures, fewer opportunities for trainees and other postdocs, and most likely, entire areas of research being shut down,” explained Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). “Companies that supply materials and equipment to labs would also be affected if/when orders slow down. Clinical trials—which require lots of money to run—probably would also be affected.”

The Struggle Is Real

While the NIH has certainly seen some lean times over the years, with previous budget cuts and economic recessions, the proposed slashing is an unprecedented amount that could do severe, long-term damage to the NIH and leave many Americans vulnerable to a vast array of infectious diseases and chronic disorders, including cancer.

Zeitzer noted that “when the NIH had to cut about 5% of its budget (approximately $1.71 billion) in FY 2013 due to sequestration, that led to a loss of 700 grants.” Grants that could have led to a better understanding of the mechanisms of disease or the discovery of potential new drug targets to improve patient therapy. In addition to the nearly $6 billion in proposed cuts for FY 2018, the Trump administration just days ago called for an additional $1.2 billion in immediate funds to be eliminated for FY 2017—totaling $7 billion in the next year and half, four times the number of cuts that were made during the 2013 sequestration.

Yet, decreases in the NIH budget are not isolated to just domestic research interests. Funding is spread across all the institutes, some of which, like the Fogarty International Center, are focused on efforts to better understand global health needs and eliminate disease burden. Under the Trump budget proposal, the Fogarty Center would be eliminated, while homeland security and defense budgets would increase seven and nine percent, respectively.

“The Fogarty Center, which has been open since the 1960s, has been instrumental in bringing together countless young international scientists and doctors to work here [in the U.S.] on novel research approaches toward global health threats such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, but also cancer research as well,” stated Catherine Bollard, M.D., president of the International Society for Cellular Therapy (ISCT). “On the flip side, the Fogarty Center enabled U.S.-based scientists to go to developing worlds to address global emerging health issues.”

Dr. Bollard continued, “I wanted to highlight the Fogarty International Center, since ISCT is so rooted in its international focus: it’s a very good example of how these drastic cuts could devastate our field internationally.”

“Art Is I, Science Is We” – Claude Bernard

Scientists understand that financial constraints come with the territory. Even the general public has some knowledge that academic researchers are constantly writing grants and begging the government for money. However, far fewer individuals understand that science, arguably more than any other field, only progresses because of the information that is transmitted when scientists publish their work for all to access. Many wrongly assume that the private sector—the biotech and pharma industries—can survive quite fine without the infusion of knowledge and information that is produced from publicly funded research. The effects of the Trump administration’s budget proposal will certainly be felt across the entire research spectrum, public and private.

“Both Biotech and Pharma rely on the basic research that the NIH funds and which only the NIH will fund because it has no profitability and/or requires a huge infusion of resources (money) that exceeds what a Pharma company would be willing to invest,” Zeitzer remarked. “Hundreds if not thousands of Biotech companies have been “spun off” from advances discovered by NIH-supported researchers. The NIH supports the fundamental discoveries that the biotechs then develop into diagnostic tests, new technologies, etc. But none of that would happen without the initial investment from the NIH.”

It would be very easy to succumb to the fear associated with the uncertainty that your laboratory and research project could be eliminated with the stroke of a pen, but scientists are a different breed. Working in a field where failed experiments—albeit an essential part of experimentation—vastly outnumber successful ones, tends to instill a unique perspective. That’s not to say that researchers completely ignore the writing on the wall either.

“There is a huge amount of angst out there,” said Dr. Bollard when discussing the interactions she has had with researchers over the past several weeks. Especially young and newly emerging investigators looking to strike out on their own, who could be disproportionally affected by large decreases in NIH funding as they are gearing up to apply for their first grants. “The field has seen a lot of ups and downs over the years, and hopefully nothing is permanent. So [for young researchers], it’s really about trying to be creative and focus on areas where they feel there might be funding priorities,” Dr. Bollard added.

However, for those scientists that feel helpless as they are seemingly left in the wake of political decisions that affect their livelihood, proposals like the NIH budget cuts may embolden scientists to come out of the lab and have their voice heard.

“Don’t take this lying down! Get involved, get active, and contact your Senators and Representatives! Congress is listening to their constituents more than ever, and we are seeing how public opinion is influencing decision-making in Congress,” Zeitzer exuberantly stated. “The recent defeat of the ACA repeal and replace bill is a great example of the power voters have right now. Becoming an advocate involves nothing more than being willing to tell your story and explain why federal funding for NIH is so important to every state and congressional district.”

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